Nonfiction, as a genre that transcends modes of mass-media
communication, is taking over. It’s a not-quite-but-almost coequal
partner with fiction in popular and unpopular literature; but recently,
you’ve more likely seen the rise of nonfiction in television (and
movies, if you count the Clooneyized adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s
‘A Perfect Storm’). From MTV’s perennial ‘Real World’, to it’s recent
‘The Osbournes’, to the host of flunkifying reality-TV shows that have
been washing up and out on network television the past couple seasons,
writers have simply stopped making stuff up. If it’s not stranger than
fiction, non-fictive truth is at least as good of a story.
The granddad of this whole nonfiction thing is probably Tom Wolfe; but
granddad can be a bit crusty, and hard to relate to sometimes – so it
couldn’t hurt to hang out with the younger, less venerated but
nonetheless important uncle of contemporary creative nonfiction – Tracy
Kidder. I can’t say I know too much more about him than what was on the
inside flap of House and what others have told me in passing; but, to
get the gist of him (yeah, Tracy’s a guy), I don’t think you have to
know too much more than that.
House is the story of a house. When it begins, a young upper-middle
class family in the collegiate Arcadian hamlet of Amherst,
Massachusetts wants to build a house. They hire an architect. They hire
a builder. The builder builds the house. In the end, the family – the
Souweines – moves into the house. The Souweines are happy with their
new house, and the book ends. The real story of House is the simmering
clash of class resentments, latent anger and personality that forms a
trans-mundane three way conflict between the Souweines, their architect
and the builders.
Kidder’s talent lays in dredging the depths of his (real) characters
and bringing up subtle internal and external antagonisms that create
the real drama real people (even boring ones) really live everyday.
Even other prime nonfiction stylists, granddad included, would likely
be much more ham-fisted about it. Kidder’s talent, tragically, is
inextricable from those qualities which can make House (and lots of
nonfiction, it’s a premise thing really) a tedious read. Ultimately,
the reality in Kidder’s reality-literature can’t have the gravity of
reality sculpted for fiction plots. Unless he were to deal with, oh, a
murder, the travails of an international drug kingpin, or some kind of
spy-thriller type story – all the subtle conflict in the world can’t
compete with a made-up scenario in which the characters actually had
something to lose over the course of the narrative. Ultimately, Kidder
does a great job seeing conflict where others might overlook it, and
making those sublimated resentments breath fresh air – but, again,
ultimately, all those sublimated resentments give rise to a series of
arguments between the Souweines and their contractors over who’ll foot
the $900 for a set of stairs.
That, along with the excursions into construction history Kidder takes
and the symbolism he hints at, will be enough to hold some people’s
attention; but not everyone’s.